8801 Oak St.
New Orleans, LA 70118
Napoleon's Rating: ***/****
Specialty burger joints are the hot trend, and sometimes it can seem like half the fine-dining restaurants in town now brag on their upscale burgers. When Cowbell came along it seemed pretty well in step with the trend. It’s run by a name chef from the fine-dining realm, Brack May, previously of Cobalt, and the menu puts the burger front and center. But there’s something refreshingly different about this place, and it starts with how the burger is made. Cowbell uses pasture-raised beef, which is more expensive but tastes much better than standard ground chuck. The rest of the menu is similarly straightforward but finely crafted, revealing the simple pleasures of simple foods done very well.
Cowbell looks like a rehabbed gas station from the outside. On the inside, the look is part architectural salvage and part folk art, with cut flowers cropping out of mason jars, bills presented in tomato cans, metal pails serving as lamp shades and a whimsical collection of found-object sculpture and contemporary art crammed to the rafters. It’s a neat looking place, though with all the corrugated steel sheeting and other hard, repurposed industrial elements it can get as loud as a body shop. It doesn’t take many people to fill this restaurant, and the majority of tables are long slabs (recycled doors, in fact) meant to encourage communal seating. This isn’t for everyone, so if you don’t want to potentially share a table your best bet is a stool at the bar or one of the small two-top tables.
It seems everyone who visits your table believes in, or at least enjoys, what they’re doing. The service is casual but also welcoming, well-informed, helpful and on task.
The menu is short but still covers a lot of ground. There’s a rare clam chowder, with bacon, minced clam and with a broth that’s milky but not too thick. There’s a fresh salad or two, and at the other end of the spectrum a basket of chili cheese fries made with the kitchen’s first-rate, fresh-cut French fries and a spicy chili using more of that organic beef. Side dishes can count as appetizers, especially the mac and cheese, made with a béchamel without any of the oily deposits you get with so many other renditions. Disappointingly, though, it also has none of the crust or browned edges I always like in a good mac and cheese.
At any given table, someone is having a hamburger. More often, everyone is having a hamburger. That’s not surprising. Cowbell makes one of the best in town, and the grass-fed organic beef it starts with is a big reason why. Bite in and you can taste the different structure and integrity of this meat. It just tastes more like meat than some ground meat product. You can get it with various cheeses, bacon and eggs, or a gourmet option with Zinfindel, bacon and onion compote. But all on it’s own it’s quite fine too. The vegetarian burger is made with beans and sweet potato, peppers, squash and broccoli all ground together and griddled up for a patty of substantial character.
Grilled chicken also comes from pasture-raised animals, and they’re served with tortillas, beans and avocados for make-your-own tacos. The grilled drum tacos with mirliton slaw is another good choice. Cowbell has a few steaks, including an excellent skirt steak, served with mango salsa, black beans and plantains.
The menu’s “adult” grilled cheese sandwiches change frequently and while they usually sound appealing the examples I tried have been tiny and too often crowded with competing flavors for the simple thrill a grilled cheese should deliver.
Specials are worth a look, like grits that were so smooth they belied the name, served on one day under a vegetarian gravy of fat mushrooms and wilted greens and on another with shrimp, smoky bits of tasso and a web of white cheddar. Still, when you come here with a burger in mind it’s hard to get anything else.
Even if you feel too full for dessert, you owe it to yourself, or at least to your table, to try the apple pie. Split it. This pie comes out folded up like a turnover, golden and crisp, spilling forth a hot apple interior, all drizzled with syrup.
Cowbell spent a prolonged spell as a BYOB place, but now with its licenses all sorted out there’s a nice list of craft beer and wines.
Cowbell is moderately-priced, and it’s appropriately-priced for the quality. The burger starts at $11, which sounds steep until you see what people charge for a burger at other restaurants around town and then consider that this one is made from vastly preferable (and more expensive) pastured beef. Appetizers might set you back $5 or $6, and other entrees range from $9 for the grilled cheese and soup combo to $24 for the rib eye. Throw in some drinks and two people will spend about $60 for dinner.
Cowbell is a new restaurant following an increasingly popular trend, that of the chef-led restaurant specializing in the standards of the diner. It does so better than most of the others following this trail around town these days, and it turns out food that is highly satisfying in a unique setting. What’s more, if you’re concerned about where your meat started out and how it got to you, this kitchen’s approach will help put your mind at ease.